Ruthless Repression, Decreasing Legitimacy: Why Al Sisi’s Regime Risks Collapsing
Gianni Del Panta 16 October 2019

On September 20, thousands of Egyptians took to the street in Cairo and other cities of the country in a rare show of anti-government protests since the July 2013 military coup. Minor protests were also reported in the following days as well as on Friday 27 when, after an unprecedented clampdown of the security forces on opposition groups, demonstrations were mainly staged in peripheral neighbourhoods and secondary streets. In less than a week, according to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, over 2000 protesters and militants of leftist, Nasserist and Islamist parties were arrested, showing the paranoia of the regime for any form of discontent and street politics. As highlighted by several media and commentators, the spontaneous outbreak of unrest came after Mohamed Ali, a former building contractor and actor who voluntarily had exiled himself in Spain, denounced the allegedly improper use of public funds by president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his inner circle. Whilst it is certainly true that corruption, illegal practices and private enrichment thanks to high-level connections with state officials are particularly hateful aspects in a country in which one-third of the population lives under the threshold of absolute poverty, the actual reasons of protests lie somewhere else.


Repression, Co-optation, Legitimation

In an academic article that has rapidly become a point of reference for scholars of non-democratic regimes, Johannes Gerschewski argues that autocrats may resort to three main instruments to survive in power: repression, co-optation and legitimation. In a very few words, repression is the actual or threatened use of physical force aimed to punish or deter dissent, whilst co-optation represents the capacity to give strategically relevant political and social groups a stake in the regime’s survival. Finally, legitimation is the process through which a regime, by drawing on either identity issues or economic performances, gains the direct and indirect support of the population. It goes without saying that these three instruments have not to be thought of as mutually exclusive for autocrats. Rather, they are always combined in various and different forms. At the same time, it is likely that an inverse relationship might exist between repression, on the one hand, and co-optation and legitimation, on the other. It is possible to hypothesise, in a schematic way, that the lower the capacity of the regime to co-opt relevant constituencies and to present itself as legitimate, the higher the use of coerced force by the regime itself. Yet, a systematic and massive use of repression could be problematic for autocrats, costing them losses in terms of international reputation, internal cohesion of the ruling coalition and capacity of the security apparatuses to effectively crush popular discontent. No regime can survive using only ruthless repression in the long term. From such a perspective, we might question whether the recent protests in Egypt testify the fact that al-Sisi is now drawing on repression and little else, thus seriously risking to be ousted either by some actors of his ruling coalition or by a mass-based uprising.


Losing the masses

In many instances of recent world history, military coups triumphed against the will of the masses. In sharp contrast, in July 2013, al-Sisi ousted the first democratically elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, thanks – among other things – to a vast popular support. In the following months, with the very few exceptions of the April 6 Movement and the Revolutionary Socialists, the entire political spectrum (liberals, leftists, Nasserists, pro-business parties and personalities linked to the previous regime) supported the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup. In a similar way, also independent trade union federations and entrepreneur organizations endorsed al-Sisi’s move. The coup was legitimised by the attempt to restore the supposedly stolen popular will and to prevent that the increasing high hostility between the Islamist camp and the other political forces might drag the country into civil war. Even more significantly, drawing on the positive representation of the army in the national-popular imaginary and constantly proposing a parallel between Nasser and himself, al-Sisi became extremely popular. Such an idyllic scenario for the regime was not, however, doomed to last.

Three main elements have to be mentioned in such regard. First and foremost, in sharp contrast to the Nasserist period, the post-2013 regime has continued to implement market-friendly policies, failing therefore to co-opt, also in a merely passive position, the organized labour movement and the lower classes in general. The social and economic conditions of these segments of the population have plummeted over the last years, fostering anger and resentment. Secondly, the Egyptian army is not only an institutional actor that has constantly played a relevant role in politics since the country achieved full independence. Rather, starting from the mid-1970s and much more in the 1980s, the military has become one of the main fractions of the Egyptian capitalist class. Whilst in the 2000s the generals were the junior partner in the ruling coalition led by the neoliberal bourgeoisie grouped around Gamal Mubarak – Hosni’s son – the defeat of the regime in 2011 forced the army at the head of the counterrevolution. At the same time, this also provided a golden opportunity for the military to increase its economic role. In so doing, however, the degree of autonomy and material interests of private capitalists has been enormously curtailed, provoking frictions between the government and the private sector. Thirdly, the megaprojects financed by the regime – to mention just the two most famous ones, the expansion of the Suez Canal and the building of a new capital in the desert – have failed to deliver the expected positive stimuli for the Egyptian economy.

Without the possibility to claim good economic performances, the legitimacy of the regime rests today entirely on nationalist feelings, the supposed menace that an Islamist takeover might transform the country into a theocracy, the long-lasting terrorist insurgency in the Sinai, and the endless repeated statement that a Libyan or Syrian scenario was avoided thanks to the military intervention. It would be incorrect to conclude that all these arguments are completely irrelevant six years after the al-Sisi-led military coup. Yet, they are much weaker than they used to be. In such regard, the extremely high level of repression of today’s Egypt is the combined effect of a very tiny capacity of the regime to co-opt and its sharply decreasing legitimacy. In the long run, this situation looks hardly bearable, making the future of the country difficult to anticipate.


Continuity or change?

The overwhelming dominant narrative of the January 25 revolution describes the initial outbreak of the protests as spontaneous and unplanned. This is far from the truth. In 2011, protests were called and organized by a vast set of political actors – from the April 6 Movement to the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, from the Revolutionary Socialists to the supporters of ElBaradei campaign for president. To be sure, none of these groups could call the masses at its own will. Yet, opposition forces provided the general framework for the entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny. The situation is, however, significantly different today. The degree of repression in al-Sisi’s Egypt is incommensurably higher than in Mubarak’s. It is simply unthinkable that any of the existing political organizations call people to protest against the government. Even the mere backing of anonymously announced street demonstrations – as clearly shown by the recent case of the Islamist Istiqlal party – can be enough to spur the regime to literally wipe out the entire leadership of a political organization. This means that a new revolutionary situation can emerge in Egypt only if the masses take the lead of the process, at least in its initial phases.

Whether or not this will be the case remains impossible to predict. Up to now, there are contrasting signs. On the one hand, the outbreak of unprecedented protests has determined the fall – or, at least, the weakening – of the wall of fear erected by al-Sisi and his allies. On the other, through the stage of counter-mobilization, the regime has claimed that the silent majority of the country remains on its side. Many of the people chanting for al-Sisi were arguably forced to be there. Yet, once an autocracy is on the brink of collapse, such initiatives often backfire on it, showing that there is no longer someone willing to support the regime. With the exception of workers in Suez (who were gathered by the authorities to show their confidence in the president and ended up demanding al-Sisi’s removal), this was not the case. Moreover, at the time of writing, it seems that the ruling coalition remains compact and faithful to the autocrat. In spite of this, an auto-coup by the inner circle of the president against al-Sisi himself cannot be ruled out. If the costs of defending the dictator increase, such a scenario might become much more likely. From this perspective, therefore, mobilization from below and an internal coup are not in contrast. Rather, they tend to foster one another. What comes next in Egypt remains uncertain.


Gianni Del Panta is postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Social, Political and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Siena. He has recently published L’Egitto tra rivoluzione e controrivoluzione: da piazza Tahrir al colpo di stato di una borghesia in armi (Il Mulino, 2019). 


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